When South Philly resident Kathy Valle met relationship guru Dr. Phil McGraw this month, she wasn’t starstruck.
However, she was struck by the image of the children who were invited to Dr. Phil’s Beverly Hills mansion. All of the youngsters have a parent stationed in Iraq.
Valle, one of 10 women who won the national Dr. Phil Holiday Sweepstakes, was asked to dress up as an elf to hand out presents to the children.
"It was really a wonderful thing to be a part of," said the resident of the 2600 block of Dudley Street. "The funny thing is, we didn’t even know about the kids until almost the last minute."
After opening their gifts, the young guests were treated to special videotaped messages from 11 dads and one mom who won’t be home for the holidays — an emotional moment that "made us all start to cry," Valle recalled.
She said she treasured the look on the kids’ faces when they discovered that Dr. Phil had stashed scooters and motorized Humvees for them amid a staged winter wonderland that included snow machines and glass trees.
The scene was all part of the real reward for Valle, who visited Dr. Phil’s mansion on Dec. 4.
A regular participant in Internet contests, Valle discovered the Dr. Phil Holiday Sweepstakes in mid-November on CBS 3’s Web site and immediately threw her name in the hat.
A self-described "mild fan" of Dr. Phil, the 65-year-old said she initially was more excited about the chance to travel to California and stay in a hotel for free than to rub elbows with one of the world’s most famous shrinks.
"He’s nice. I do watch his show sometimes," she said. "But I also had never been to California, and it’s something I had always wanted to do."
Valle almost had forgotten about the contest when she received a phone call from the TV station on Nov. 29, informing her that she was one of five finalists.
The following day, CBS anchor Pat Ciarrocchi turned up at her doorstep with balloons, hats and a Dr. Phil book in tow.
"I thought, ‘Why are they doing all of this if I’m just a finalist?’" Valle recalled with a laugh. "Then they told me that I was actually the winner. I was thrilled."
Phone calls and e-mails from Dr. Phil’s organizers quickly followed and, before Valle knew it, she was boarding a plane on Dec. 3 with her son Michael, 41.
A limousine whisked the Valles from Los Angeles International Airport to their hotel, which was just minutes from Universal Studios.
"I was kind of disappointed with the airport and the drive to the Holiday Inn. L.A. was a lot dirtier than I expected," Kathy Valle said.
After a day of sightseeing, the contest winners from a range of states — including Massachusetts, New York and Texas — were called on Saturday for hair and makeup.
"We had a diverse group of women — young, old and in between, but we all got along great," Valle said.
The women dressed in matching green sweaters and black pants before meeting Dr. Phil and his wife, Robin. The McGraws handed the women elf hats and introduced them to 12 families who came from Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in Southern California.
The encounter with the military families was recorded and aired on Dr. Phil beginning yesterday at 5 p.m. The second part airs today.
Later, Valle and the other prize-winners had the chance to pose for pictures with Dr. Phil while enjoying some light conversation over coffee and dessert.
"They were both very personable and accommodating," she said of the McGraws. "They’re down-to-earth people."
The guests parted with gift packs worth $250 that included frames, books and CDs.
"When the time came, I was actually excited to meet him," Valle said. "But you know what? He was just a regular guy. We couldn’t get over his mansion, but he said he just lived there and Robin took care of the rest."
Before returning home on Sunday, Valle enjoyed one extra surprise with her son: CBS gave them $200 to buy food at the hotel, so the mother-and-son duo enjoyed a $140 breakfast.
Now that she’s home and survived her brush with fame, Valle is once again turning her focus to Internet contests. Aside from the Dr. Phil trip, she has netted some other big prizes, including a trip to Disney World five years ago.
"I’m on the lookout for a $100,000 cooking contest," said the prolific home chef.
"Now that would really be something," she added with a laugh.